The Art of Editing Translations

Montreal Syllabus Translation Editing French English I’ve edited many a translation in my day, and I always thought I had to understand the source language to be able to detect the types of errors—like false friends—that typically plague translations. Recently, however, I’ve been editing a novel translated from Dari—the Persian dialect spoken in Afghanistan and a language of which I have zero knowledge—into English, and I have learned something important: if a passage reads like a translation, it needs editing.

I don’t need to know Dari to know that, in certain sections of the novel, the English doesn’t sound natural. If something stirs inside of me, if I pause or, worse, if I go back and re-read a section because I don’t think it sounds quite right then it probably is not.

It’s important to remember that there is only one “first read” and if, in that first contact with the passage, something strikes me as just left of centre (strange word order, weird word choice), then it’s highly likely that there’s a translation issue lurking between the lines.

Time to dig a little deeper. I think about the author’s word choice. I try to get inside the writer’s voice—does the word fit with their style or is the translator’s voice interfering? Is the word order creative or simply un-English? Sometimes it’s hard to tell.

So I read it out loud. I read the good passages out loud. Then I read the bad ones. The difference is striking. Like a spotlight that falls on a thief stealing diamonds in the night, the bad word jumps off the page, the awkward phrase that hugs tightly to the text’s original tongue is exposed for what it is—a translation.

It doesn’t mean I always know how to fix the issue. Sometimes the problem is deeper than simply swapping the wrong word for the right one. Even though heavy editing may get me into hot water (who’s writing this novel anyhow?), I flag it. Editing a translation is, after all, a three‑way conversation between author, translator, and editor.

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